The Pulse | Society | South Asia

India’s Hindu Right Is Cherry-picking a Gory Murder Incident to Surveil Interfaith Couples

This is yet another move by the BJP to prevent Hindu women from marrying Muslim men.

India’s Hindu Right Is Cherry-picking a Gory Murder Incident to Surveil Interfaith Couples

Nazima Shaikh prays for her deceased son Arbaz Mulla at her home in Belagavi, India, Oct. 7, 2021. Arbaz Mullah, a Muslim, was in love with a Hindu woman. The romance so angered the woman’s family that — according to police — they hired members of a hardline Hindu group to murder him.

Credit: AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi

In November 2022, several incidents of a lover or spouse killing their partner and chopping the body into pieces came to light. Most of these cases involved Hindu couples, except for one. Yet, leaders and supporters of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chose to highlight that one incident, not only to amplify their campaign cautioning against interfaith marriages but also to bring in a surveillance mechanism.

In the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, a 46-year-old Hindu man, Pankaj Maurya, was arrested for allegedly strangling his Hindu wife, cutting her body into pieces and disposing of the body parts in a field. In the same state, a Hindu youth, Prince Yadav, was arrested for killing his ex-girlfriend Anuradha, a Hindu, cutting the body into six pieces and dumping them in a well.

In the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, a Hindu man Ram Kishore Patel allegedly beheaded his Hindu wife, Saraswati, and dumped the dismembered body parts in a nearby forest. In the same state, Hindu man Kalu Yadav did the same thing with his wife and stepdaughter, and Abhijit Patidar, also a Hindu, killed his Hindu girlfriend in a resort.

In the national capital of Delhi, wife Poonam and son Deepak killed Anjan Das, cut his body into 22 pieces and dumped them in different forest areas nearby.

However, the incident that hogged all the limelight, including in the international media, was that of Muslim man Aftab Amin Poonawala killing his Hindu live-in partner Shraddha Walkar, storing the body parts in a refrigerator, and dumping them in different parts of Delhi’s Mehrauli forest over the next couple of weeks. This incident created greater sensation, perhaps because the accused was reportedly inspired by the American TV show, “Dexter.”

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Just a day after the police unearthed the crime, Union Minister for Rural Development Giriraj Singh labeled the incident as one of “love jihad,” a term that the Hindu right uses to accuse Muslim men of waging a jihad or religious war by luring Hindu women to fall in love with them.

“It’s a misfortune of the country that in Delhi, when non-Muslim women engage in love marriage, they are chopped into pieces… They [Muslim men] entice Hindu girls by changing [their] names and attire [pretending to be Hindu] … This is unfortunate that love jihad has become a mission in this country,” Singh told the media.

Soon after, the BJP’s national spokesperson Priti Gandhi tweeted a video showing a random man, who identified himself as a Muslim, saying that Poonawala, and every man for that matter, had every right to chop their partner/spouse into as many pieces as they wished if the woman in the relationship disobeyed him. The police soon traced the man and found out that he was a Hindu posing as a Muslim.

Then, OpIndia, a popular digital publication of the Hindu right, published an opinion piece by its editor, Nupur J. Sharma, who wrote: “With a Hindu woman being at greater risk when the perpetrator is a Muslim, it is natural for Hindus to talk about the Muslim identity of the perpetrator, given the historical oppression that Hindu women have faced and the oppression that they continue to face to this date.”

Interfaith marriages rarely take place in India, where Hindus comprise 79.8 percent of the population, according to the 2011 Census, and Muslims another 14.2 percent. Parents, more often than not, not only object to interfaith but also intercaste marriages. This was the case with Walkar’s family, who wrote in the police complaint that they were opposed to her relationship with Poonawala because they have objections to marriage outside their own caste and religion. This caused estrangement with their daughter.

Intercaste and inter-religious marriages are so vehemently opposed in some Hindu communities that families indulge in what is called “honor killing,” or killing the daughter (in most cases) or the son to save the family’s honor. Such is the gravity of the situation that India’s Supreme Court in 2018 issued a set of guidelines to deal with such cases, including setting up a 24×7 telephone helpline for lovers at risk from their family.

However, using Walkar’s case and her family’s complaints, the BJP-backed government in Maharashtra, the state where Walkar was from, first announced that they were “looking at laws in other states with respect to ‘love jihad’” and “will decide and formulate one” accordingly. Then, they issued a notification to form a body to track intercaste and interfaith marriages and the paternal family of the woman in the relationship. After the notification triggered a furor, they dropped intercaste marriages from the ambit of the committee. It was renamed as the Interfaith Marriage-Family Coordination Committee (state level).

BJP leader-cum-Maharashtra’s Women and Child Welfare Minister Mangal Prabhat Lodha, notably a man, is to head the committee. The 13-member committee has only one Muslim member, social worker Irfan Ali Pirzade.

Soon after this, the home minister in another BJP-ruled state, Madhya Pradesh, announced that the government was mulling a law to mandate police verification of interfaith marriages.

Lodha denied that the committee’s functioning was about “love jihad.” “It’s only to help those girls who have gone against the wishes of their original family. We want to protect them, we want them to communicate with their original family. That’s all,” he said.

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However, opposition parties and social activists expressed a very different opinion. Former Maharashtra minister Jitendra Awhad, a leader of the Nationalist Congress Party, one of the state’s opposition parties, wrote on Rwitter, “Who is (the) govt to spy on who marries whom? In liberal Maharashtra this (is) a retrograde, nauseating step. Which way is progressive #Maharashtra heading towards. Stay away from people’s pvt. life.”

While several women’s rights organizations criticized the move, speakers at an event titled “Love in the Time of Hate,” organized in Maharashtra’s capital, Mumbai, lambasted the move.

Speaking to this writer, Vishal Vimal, who heads the Maharashtra Andhshraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (superstition eradication committee), opined that the move was aimed at creating a fear psychosis among Hindus to sharpen the religious divide in society and intensify communal polarization for reaping political benefits. Pointing out that there was no evidence to say domestic violence is more prevalent in intercaste or interfaith marriages, he said that the move is not only against the spirit of secularism enshrined in the Indian Constitution but also against one’s right to privacy.

“Inter-religious marriages take place under government supervision under the Special Marriages Act. In most cases, contacts between such couples and their families eventually revive after a year or so. It is only in those cases where the family is too rigid that the couples stay away from them. When they are living happily, why should the government inform parents about their whereabouts?” Vimal asked. This would expose such couples to risks rather than offer them protection, he felt.